My next project is a short story, which is a problem since short stories are not my forte. I like grand schemes, overarching plots and slow character development, none of which lends itself to a restricted medium. Fortunately, however, I have a friend who is the master of short stories and has had multiple works published to prove it. So I went to Andrew Knighton for advice:
Everwalker asked me to write about the single piece of advice I’d give to someone writing a short story. I’m not sure I could stick to just one thing – I get gobby once I get going – but what follows is as good as I’ll get.
If a novel is an argument, an extended exploration of a linked set of concepts, themes and characters, then a short story is an idea, a single focused slither of thought. Whether it’s a story in a women’s magazine that evokes the idea of ‘holiday romance’, or a piece in Asimov’s depicting ‘the AI revolution’, you don’t have space in a short story to ramble, making focus on that core idea all the more important.
The stories that I’m most proud of, that have been big stepping stones for me, have had this focused quality. My first published story, So Cold It Burns, was about ‘losing the things we try to save’. The Cast Iron Kid was ‘steam-powered robot’. Urban Drift, coming soon to an anthology near you, is ‘a city with moving buildings’. They all have more to them than that, and it took craft and hard work to turn those ideas into something readable, but it was by staying focused on those core ideas that I made something I was proud of.
I’ve got a far bigger, and better hidden, heap of failures. One of my most recent was ‘pirates after a biblical flood’. The idea really floated my boat. So much so that I started thinking widely about context, back story, history, metaphysics, all the things that made my characters’ world. Into my story crept Dandies, Puritans, Aztec crystals, Richard Cromwell… I’d only written 1500 words but I could already tell it was a mess. Because all those other ideas were great background, and it was relevant for me to know about them, but they were so far off the core idea that they’d displaced it, and I’d lost the story I’d meant to tell.
I’m not saying that a good idea is enough to make a good story. Of course it isn’t. But focus is one of the key things, and in the limited space of a short story it becomes all the more important.
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